What Does It Mean To Be In Role?

The lights are low, I hear drumming in the background as the fifth graders come into the classroom, shoes off, ready to work. “Let’s just jump right into it” says one. I instruct the students to lie down on the soft rug and we begin. We begin with a guided relaxation exercise that changes the atmosphere of the entire room. We prepare to move “into role” and our lives in a Taino village in 1492.

As the students lie down, I remind the children of our work in the last class session, “An elder of the tribe has discovered a baby near the village. You met as a tribe last time we were together. Your chief asked you to meet as families and to share your family’s perspective on how to proceed regarding the child.” The drama starts as students rise up from the floor and once again improvise and revisit their character’s daily routine. Slowly, each character moves toward the others in her family. Each student has chosen their character’s rhythms and centers of energy. They have created daily routines and built relationships in their imagined tribe. Suddenly, one student begins to drum and the chief’s right hand person announces that the meeting has begun. We gather in a circle and listen to the families perspectives on the child. I slip into role now as a trusted elder of the tribe to keep the narrative alive and to offer support within the extended improvisation.

This scene repeats in the fourth grade classrooms with different ethnic groups and “given circumstances” and research. But the intensity of the focus and the passion of the student actors are consistent in all three classrooms.

In fourth and fifth grade drama, we have synthesized our work with primary resources, historical fiction, museum visits and our more research to create our own Taino, Wampanoag, and Powhatan tribal villages and the villages of the settlers from Hispaniola, Plymouth and the Jamestown colonies. To deepen our understanding of these communities, students live “in role” experiencing each side of their respective encounter. This method of working in role with the teacher, where the performance happens for the benefit of the participants is Process Drama.

Cecily O’Neil, an expert in the field of drama in education, defines process drama as an experience of a series of improvisations created solely for the participants
“to establish an imaginary world, a dramatic “elsewhere”” created by the participants as they discover, articulate and sustain fictional roles and situations…Because it is active and collaborative, participants in process drama are required to think in and through the materials of the medium in which they are working and to manipulate and transform these materials. Process drama involves making, shaping, and appreciating a dramatic event…” O’Neil, Drama Worlds.

So, in fifth grade, the students, classroom teachers and the drama specialist take everything we know about the world of the Tainos to create our version of the Taino tribe. While we exist in their world, we discover new questions that require answers and new feelings and thoughts arise. We make mental notes of the holes in our research. We wonder. We feel deeply. We take risks within the safety of our drama studio.

The purpose of process drama is different from drama in performance in that students are concerned with artfully
“creating meaning together and creating visible mental models of our understanding together, in imaginative contexts and situations…it is…about exploration”.
~Wilhelm and Edmiston, Imagining to Learn: Inquiry, Ethics and Integration Through Drama.

Drama technique in fourth and fifth grade concentrates on creating a character. Students learn acting techniques to bring a character to life. But all the technique in the world is meaningless without context and desire to learn.
Some of you might have heard about the “baby” that was found as we were working in role in each of our native villages. The baby was a conflict introduced by the teacher; (in role as a high-ranking tribal elder) to create dramatic tension and to move the students more deeply into their tribal families role-play. Historically, all three tribes, caring for a stranger, a baby from another tribe or from the settlers could create misunderstandings or lead to a battle. The stakes were high as the students recognized the struggle the baby presented.

As the drama evolved over a series of two days, students became passionately involved in the improvisations. In two of the classrooms, the baby was adopted and honored with names such as “Honored Summer” and “Chosen One”. In one of the tribes, the chief approved a plan to bring the baby back to her people on another island and to remain close to make sure her people discovered the little girl.

After debriefing the drama, we switch lenses and move to the point of view of the settlers. More later.

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